Msgr. Joseph Rebman is being remembered for his dedication to the church and his genial demeanor in tributes after his death on Oct. 3. The longtime parish priest and diocesan executive died at the age of 85 following a brief illness.
“The Catholic community of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore owes a debt of gratitude to Msgr. Rebman,” Bishop William E. Koenig said. “His many decades of unparalleled service to the church on every level, as well as his constantly cheerful disposition, are an inspiration to us all.”
Joseph Francis Rebman was born in Wilmington on Dec. 6, 1935, and attended St. Peter’s Parochial School and Salesianum School. Part of his seminary preparation took place in Rome, and he was ordained to the priesthood there at the North American College by Bishop Martin J. O’Connor. He returned to Delaware in 1961 and was assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish in Elkton, Md.
Following a period in Washington, D.C., during which he earned a licentiate in Canon Law, Father Rebman returned to Delaware as associate pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Hockessin. Other parish assignments included associate pastorates at Holy Child, Wilmington, and St. Joseph on the Brandywine, Greenville. He was briefly the administrator of two parishes, St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Peter the Cathedral Parish, both in Wilmington.
Over the years, Msgr. Rebman served in many capacities at the diocesan level. He was a full-time staffer on the diocesan Marriage Tribunal as advocate, defender of the bond, judge and judicial vicar. In 1969 he was named assistant chancellor and master of ceremonies, a post he held until 1998. He also served as chancellor.
Click here for the livestream of Msgr. Rebman’s funeral Mass.
Msgr. Rebman – he was named an honorary prelate with that title in 1975 – was a member of the priests’ council, pastoral council and the College of Consultors. He was director of the Mission Office for two years in the 1990s, a member of the Liturgical Commission and director of ecumenism, and chairman of the real estate committee. He served as diocesan administrator after the late Bishop Robert E. Mulvee was transferred from Wilmington to Providence, R.I.
One of his ministries involved cemeteries. He was the longtime director of Catholic Cemeteries and was president of the National Catholic Cemetery Conference from 1978-80.
He became pastor of St. Joseph on the Brandywine in 1999 and remained there until May of this year, when he retired for health reasons. Father Glenn Evers spent a year and a half as an associate at the parish and said if his health had remained good, Msgr. Rebman would not have retired. Father Evers, administrator of St. Joseph on French Street in Wilmington and associate moderator of the curia for the diocese, said the older priest was like “the Energizer Bunny. Absolutely loved being a priest.”
“Whatever he could do to serve others, he was always available and present,” Father Evers said. “For me as a younger priest, it was just a great inspiration.”
Father Evers noted that he was not the only younger priest mentored at St. Joseph on the Brandywine. Others include Fathers Brian Lewis, Chris Coffiey and John Olson, all of whom are leading their own parishes today. He also said Msgr. Rebman did not want to retire, but he had to because of his health.
“He is what I like to call a priest’s priest. His desire was to serve until he could serve no more. And that’s effectively what he accomplished,” Father Evers said.
Upon the announcement of the monsignor’s retirement, retired Bishop Francis Malooly expressed his thanks in a letter he delivered to the priest himself.
“You have earned a position of high esteem in the Diocese of Wilmington through your tireless commitment. Whether in the church or in the chancery, your service has stood out as a true gift from the Lord that has touched so very many people’s lives. For this, I am grateful,” Bishop Malooly’s letter read.
Msgr. Rebman was known for his quick wit and jokes. In June, he held a giveaway of many of the belongings he had accumulated over the years, and the garage at St. Joe’s on the Brandywine was filled with vestments, hats, books and other items, including a box of Roman collars.
“I’m trying to encourage vocations,” he said.
The number of books – including one of clean jokes – outnumbered everything else in the garage. Msgr. Rebman said once you read a book, “give that away, and you’ll always have room on your bookshelf.”
Several hats lined a wall of the garage, including a baseball hat from his alma mater, Salesianum, where the future priest was a cheerleader. The current school principal, Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Chris Beretta, called Msgr. Rebman a proud graduate “and a true Salesianum gentleman.
“Much like St. Francis de Sales, patron of Salesianum and the diocese, he was unfailingly kind and gentle, and never failed to offer hospitality and welcome to all. He will be missed.”
St. Joe’s on the Brandywine produced a video in May to mark his retirement, and friends and parishioners shared memories of the priest. One, Kathleen Blackwelder, recalled the St. Patrick’s Day parties Msgr. Rebman would host with the late Msgr. Paul Taggart.
“It was customary for Msgr. Rebman to greet the guests at the door wearing a wine glass on a thin brown lanyard around his neck,” Blackwelder wrote. “Also, he would wear the late Bishop FitzMaurice’s satin green with yellow embroidery shoes. He would comment that the bishop had ‘small feet,’ but for one evening he enjoyed wearing them.”
Eva Lyons, the former director of religious education, recalled in the video the time she asked Msgr. Rebman to meet with a confirmation class on a Sunday night. They were dressed in their saints’ costumes. Msgr. Rebman showed up in costume himself “and outshone us all. You have poured yourself out for all of us for so long, and there is no way we can ever adequately show our gratitude.”
Msgr. Rebman told The Dialog in an interview earlier this year that he celebrated Mass almost every day of his priesthood. He said March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph, and Dec. 6, his birthday, were his favorite days to say Mass. He cherished the opportunity to preach.
“I try to preach a little bit every day,” he said.
A viewing will be held Oct. 11 from 6-8p.m. at St. Joseph on the Brandywine, 10 Old Church Road, Wilmington, and Oct. 12 from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at St. Elizabeth Church, 809 S. Broom St., Wilmington. The Mass of Christian Burial will be at St. Elizabeth on Oct. 12 at 1 p.m., celebrated by Bishop Koenig. Bishop John O. Barres of Rockville Centre, N.Y., will be the homilist. Burial will be at All Saints Cemetery.